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JUN/JUL 2006 | REGIONAL | PACIFIC NW

Aurora Beerialis
By Jim "Dr. Fermento" Roberts

Summer in Alaska is really a flash-in-the-pan season where everything is accelerated across the brief span of a couple of short months of long days. The sourdoughs avoid the big cities and instead haul their favorite beer to fishing holes, backpacking destinations, summer cabins and other places where a true Alaskan experience is unfettered by the hustle and bustle that comes with an influx of people from all over the world looking for a taste of America’s last frontier.

Before school is out and people bring their kids north on vacation, locals celebrate what’s known as “deck weather” and search out the venues with the best beer variety and the most outdoor exposure to enjoy drinking it. Hands down, the multiple decks at the Snow Goose Restaurant and Sleeping Lady Brewing Company are the most popular. The “lower” deck is expansive and faces northwest, affording sweeping vistas of Cook Inlet, Mt. McKinley and the namesake Mt. Susitna, better known as “the Sleeping Lady” because the formation across the inlet resembles a long-haired native woman sleeping peacefully on her back. Too bad we can’t get a bigger-than-life-sized pint glass in her hand to entice drinkers to keep sampling the more than a dozen “Goose” beers on tap.

Earlier in the year, Goose brewer Jesse Theken left the industry. He started his brewing career at the midtown Cusack’s Brewpub until sketchy management closed the entire hotel, dragging the brewpub down with it. He then moved on to the Goose, where he remained until early this year.

Theken was replaced by Nate Ryske, formerly the assistant brewer at the nearby Glacier BrewHouse. Ryske has revitalized the brewery and added much-needed quality control and consistency to the Goose’s lineup of distinctive brews. The multiple-award-winning Urban Wilderness Pale Ale pulled a silver medal in the 2006 World Beer Cup competition in Seattle. For a brief time last year, Urban Wilderness was being produced in cans for added portability. It’s not currently being packaged that way, but there’s plenty of this fresh libation on tap for locals and tourists alike.

Glacier keeps adding cooperage but still can’t keep up with demand, even after installing two new fermenters in an already tight brewing area. Longtime brewer Kevin Burton quietly keeps his under-floor cellar conditioning tanks full, and likewise his 50 wooden casks of specialty beers, one or two of which can always be found on tap at the bar. For the brewery’s 10th anniversary on May 20, a Calvados-conditioned Scotch ale was released. Earlier in the year, Burton imported a pin of J. W. Lee’s Harvest Ale (Calvados-infused). The vessel was saved to age the anniversary ale.

Midnight Sun Brewing Company’s winter seasonal, CoHoHo (an imperial IPA), has been replaced by the new summer seasonal, Saison of the Sun. For Midnight Sun’s 11th anniversary, also in May, the brewery released Anniversary XI (Cross I’d) Double IPA. Simcoe hops helped bump this bad boy up to 105 IBUs, and at 9%, it was truly smiting. The brewery has rapidly outgrown its confines despite at least three major expansions, and the ownership continues to shop around for a new location.

Up the road a piece (360 miles or so) in Fox, Alaska, Silver Gulch Brewing Company continues to quietly plug along. One of its interesting beers this quarter was Old Educator IPA. IPAs are abundant in this hop-loving state but are unusual for this brewery. Another IPA was made as a modification of the first recipe, and brewer Dan Unkerskov bumped the IBUs up to 75 and called it Super Gerk IPA. Both beers are modifications of Old 55, the flagship beer of the long-demised Bird Creek Brewing Company. Silver Gulch obtained the rights to produce beers out of the Bird Creek line a couple of years ago.

In terms of physical plant size, Silver Gulch is the second-largest brewery in the state and is situated in the cavernous and historic Fox Roadhouse. Bumps in production have caused a recent expansion into what used to be the roadhouse’s bar area. This has enabled more creative endeavors in the kettles, including Big Head Pilsner, a 7.2% brew inspired by Carlsberg Elephant Beer, and Crystalweizen, a light summer quencher. Unkerskov affectionately calls it Dunk’s Lawnmower Beer “because you won’t cut your toes off at 4%.”

Alaskan Brewing Company in Juneau released its annual Alaskan Summer Ale (a kolsch) in April this year, which is a delicious alternative to the light and perfumey Alaskan Pale Ale, a staple at any joint around the state that carries a local brew. Alaskan’s brews continue to dominate the medal-winning numbers in the state, and rather than face another plant expansion, the brewery may have to build a place just for its awards. Alaskan Pale earned a silver medal at the 2006 World Beer Cup, and Boogie Bitter (a special or best bitter) pulled a bronze at the same event. Add these two to the 86 other beer medals from various competitions around the world, and Alaskan has to be one of the most award-winning breweries on the planet.

New additions to the state include the Ring of Fire Meadery in Homer, an ambitious undertaking by “head zymurgist” Lawrence Livingston, formerly of both Cusack’s Brewpub in Anchorage and Great Bear Brewing Company in Wasilla. Mead is an eclectic beverage, and to open a full production facility in the small Kenai Peninsula town of Homer is bold indeed. The brewery opened in conjunction with the town’s annual Shorebird Festival on May 4–7. When the operation ramps up toward full production, upwards of 21 meads will be available, most of which can be had on tap.

Up the road from Homer, the city of Kenai welcomed Alaska’s newest brewery, Kassik’s Kenai Brew Stop. An ambitious husband and wife team of Frank and Debara Kassik built the place virtually by hand and raced to get their first brew into the kettle on April 25. Equipment was pieced together from a number of places, including a failed brewing operation in Homer’s Alice’s Champagne Palace.

Alaska’s breweries don’t pay much attention to the sourdoughs at this time because it’s difficult to keep up with demand in their busiest seasons. This is why most commercial brewers travel during the winter instead. If you plan to visit our state this year, do your homework carefully (using the Celebrator, of course), because there are over a thousand miles of breweries spread from Alaska’s southeastern panhandle to its heart in the vast interior. A combination of travel will be required, because some of the breweries are available only by water or air. Our summers may be brief, but our beer is bold and lasting.

James Roberts is the weekly beer columnist for the Anchorage Press and is known by his alter ego, “Dr. Fermento.” E-mail him at james.roberts@gci.net for specific information or traveling tips.

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